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Raya and the Last Dragon

animation, family film, Review, Streaming, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

After Disney-owned Pixar charged into the 2020s with the one-two punch of Onward and Soul, the mainline Walt Disney Animation has entered the fray with their latest jab at multicultural representation. Much as Moana focused on Polynesian culture, Raya And The Last Dragon seeks to be a platform for Southeast Asia, bolstered by a wealth of Asian-American voice talent ranging from Fandom Menace survivor Kelly Marie Tran as the warrior princess Raya to rising star Awkwafina as the water dragon Sisu, right down to Thalia Tran as Noi the littlest con artist and a brief appearance from Dumbfoundead as Chai the flower guy. Even the main writing credits follow suit, with Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim.

Following Raya and Sisu on an adventure across the vibrant and splintered land of Kumandra as they track down the pieces of a mystical orb, the universe here feels like its own little world. The individual lands of Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail show great variety, and the graphic fidelity in all the little elements that comprise them, from light to rainfall to the textures on the characters themselves, is masterfully presented. Ditto for James Newton Howard’s soundtrack, which hasn’t sounded this splendorous in quite some time.

The story at large deals heavily in the concept of trust between people, with the fractured landscape serving as geographic representation of what happened to the nations within. While it adds certain facets to the characterisation of Raya, easily one of the most morally conflicted of the Disney Princesses, along with her connection to rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), the way this theme manifests in the narrative feels far too simplistic.

It gets to the point where adults with adventurous livers could make a drinking game out of how many times “trust” is brought up in dialogue, and the way that it’s treated as a part of human behaviour is equally as leaden. Trust here is presented as something that is vital for existence, but its exploration never goes further than ‘we must do this thing, just trust us’. With Disney’s last effort Frozen II, easily one of the most challenging animated features of the entire 2010s, Raya being so perfunctory feels beneath their abilities. And not just the studio’s either; co-director Carlos López Estrada going from the likes of Blindspotting to this is quite disheartening.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Raya And The Last Dragon, it’s merely serviceable.

In cinemas March 4 and on Disney+ with Premier Access from March 5.

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Trailer: Luca

As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery... the latest Pixar even named their film after the director of Call Me By Your Name.
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Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train

animation, Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Anime films of this nature have an immediate barrier to entry: an audience’s potential unfamiliarity with the franchise. As this is not only the cinematic continuation of a 26-episode series, but has also become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time (knocking the classic Spirited Away off the throne in the process), it could end up drawing animation junkies in who might not entirely know what they’re getting themselves into. Will newbies understand how breathing techniques are meant to make someone summon flame tigers and water dragons, or what that guy is doing running around with a boar’s mask on his head?

Fortunately, while it may not be the most beginner-friendly feature out there, it does well enough at getting the audience up to speed regardless.

Set in a world of demons and Demon Hunters, the film follows brave Tanjiro, sheepish Zenitsu, and the aforementioned boar-mask berserker Inosuke, as they board a train regularly beset by demons. The voice acting is great across the board, from Natsuki Hanae’s tragic strength as Tanjiro, Yoshisugu Matsuoka imbuing Inosuke with a relentless bestial spirit, Satoshi Hino as veteran Demon Hunter Rengoku – memetic from his first word, and Daisuke Hirakawa as the main demon Enmu is spine-chilling in his delivery.

And all those voices are backed up by spectacular presentation, courtesy of animation studio Ufotable, who not only worked on the original series, but more adventurous anime-heads may recognise their work on the Junji Ito nightmare Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack. They bring a similar sense of visceral terror to the proceedings here, from the copious amounts of blood (and the gleefully energetic fight scenes that spill them) to the grotesque visualisation of Enmu’s powers, turning an ordinary train into the realm of an eldritch incubus.

All that, while still engaging in more traditional Shonen hyperactivity, where it seems like everyone has their quirk settings stuck on 11 and will randomly break out into dialogue seemingly designed to be repeated in Internet forums worldwide. With that in mind, the film’s juggling of tones is rather impressive, shifting quickly from confronting psychological territory to light-hearted banter at the drop of a hat… yet without that hat dropping on the floor in the process.

It may not be the most open to newcomers, and its final act can feel like a sudden track switch into a completely different story, but it serves as a decent introduction into the world of Demon Slayer.

The characters are fun, the action is exciting, the horror is both profound and profoundly gross, and within its main demographic, it harkens back to the days when Bleach was in its youthful prime and Fullmetal Alchemist could be incredibly silly and heartbreaking all at once. It’s not the smoothest ride, but still one worth taking, no matter where you get on from.

Photos: ©Koyoharu Gotoge / SHUEISHA, Aniplex, ufotable

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Earwig and the Witch

animation, Asian Cinema, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The latest film from Studio Ghibli, their first since 2014’s When Marnie Was There, could be mistaken, from the title alone, as a riff on John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There’s even a rock band featured prominently that could have walked straight out of a drag club. However, Earwig and the Witch couldn’t really be any further from that 2001 cult film.

For the first time, Ghibli utilise computer animation, adapting Diana Wynne Jones’s 2011 book about Earwig, a wily young girl brought up in an orphanage until she is adopted by witch Bella Yagga and sorcerer The Mandrake. Now, you’d assume that witches and sorcerers living together would mean all sorts of bad news, however, these guys are all about coming up with spells to win dog showing contests and writing novels, rather than cursing their enemies – which they can also do, it’s just not their priority right now. Instead, they adopt Earwig to help them with chores, like picking out spell ingredients from the yard or crushing rat bones; but she is keen to know more… Things open up for her when she teams up with Thomas, Bella Yagga’s black cat.

It’s a simple tale, easily understood by children of most ages, and the message around accepting difference, even when there are preconceptions, is something to savour. However, viewers expecting the usual flights of fancy of most Ghibli films, including the other Diana Wynne Jones adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle, will most likely be disappointed by Earwig’s simplicity and episodic nature. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) and supervised by his famous father Hayao, there’s a lot to admire here, but it’s also quite slight in the end.

You don’t get swept away by Earwig as much as appreciate the Ghiblian character design and world building, and the juxtaposition between the macabre and the cute. The Japanese twist on an English story is also refreshing, bringing a nice balance between the harsh and the soft, but it really doesn’t reach beyond the surface. It’s ultimately a welcome, if not outstanding, addition to the Studio Ghibli canon and nothing like John Cameron Mitchell’s groundbreaking Hedwig, but in the words of another classic movie, ‘you know, for kids.’

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Tilda Cobham-Hervey Animated

Riding high from the acclaim for her performance as Helen Reddy in I Am Woman, Cobham-Hervey continues to exceed expectations, turning to co-directing animated short Roborovski.